Ghosts of New Years ~ Past, Present, & Future

One of my most daunting and compelling annual tasks is planning changes for the next season of NBTSC. While I am the boss and I either make or sign off on all the big decisions, we are definitely a feedback-driven entity. (I should acknowledge that a big chunk of the “feedback” is my own – during a camp season I generate 30 to 50 pages of  notes, everything from “Senior staff checklist should include dietary restrictions form” to “We need a simple template for conflict resolution to share with campers.”) I receive deeply thoughtful ideas and suggestions from most of my admin team, from many session staff, and from a handful of current campers, a few parents, and occasional alumni. (I actually get heaps of miscellaneous feedback from campers, but much of it, taken as a whole, is self-canceling.  Some think it’d be best to make Vermont a two-week session like we run in Oregon; others request to go back to a couple one-week sessions with a break in the middle. Equal parts “the new mandatory session on consent needs to be longer,” and “it’s against camp philosophy to force us to go to a consent discussion.” Or an advisee group discusses the schedule and splits down the middle, and their advisor reports: “Breakfast should be shorter / longer, and it should start earlier / later.” Yes, for realz, that is a quote.)

True confession: I do struggle with feedback, especially from folks who know little about hosting events for 100 teenagers with a cornucopia of dietary restrictions, or who are simply unfamiliar with our past experiments. (The innocent “We should have campers DJ the prom!” only reminds me glumly of the year I read “There was universal hatred for having camper DJs – staff needs to fill that role so they take the brunt of the unavoidable criticism, and because most staff are capable of setting aside personal tastes in favor of creating an eclectic dance mix.” In case that makes our community sound like a mean bunch of spoiled brats, taint so. They are 94% cooperative, appreciative sweethearts, but some do get their suspenders in a bunch over the prom playlist.) When I know I’m going to spend the day reading evaluations, I make sure there’s a bottle of tequila in the cupboard for later. (In 2013, I didn’t need my margarita: instead I imbibed a freshly penned and deliciously, bitterly affirming essay by Ethan Mitchell entitled Conference Evaluations, Most to Least Helpful.)

Every year since 1997 we’ve made big changes. The fact that we change and the way that we engage change is one of the things I most love and am most proud of about NBTSC. That’s the bright side. But this long winter moment of digesting everybody’s thoughts, desires, self-confident critiques? This is the dark side, and sometimes it’s painfully humbling. It’s the opposite of taking stock of our successes – it means facing our shadows and failures and broken hinges and confusions and, basically, any impediments to the goodness that we all wish NBTSC to embody.  (The later work of changing things also swallows big black holes of time and energy, and I often wonder if NBTSC is sustainable for me – it’s a poop-ton of work, and it doesn’t seem to get much easier, 20 years in.  Last week found me fantasizing about getting a real job. But then this morning finds me swooning over the names of beloved campers and alumni signed up for Joshua Tree.)

So anyway. I combine all the feedback from campers, staff, parents, and alumni with my own notes, which together generates a document barely shy of 100 pages.  I read  through carefully, harvesting the recurring or important themes.  Finally I distill 5-10 of these into a list of “Key Changes and Directions for NBTSC.” (I also divert the discrete helpful tidbits into domain-specific documents like “changes to worktrade program for next time.”)

I email the list to my admin team (currently Evan, Matt, Maya, Margie, and Jeff), and parlay parts into our staff hiring agreement, the “key changes” section on the essentials page of our website, and other propaganda.  We work to implement these changes throughout the year, and of course (just like with personal resolutions) some turn out to be multi-year aspirations.

Tonight, on the eve of the year of our 20th season, I thought I’d tie back the curtain for you and share a few excerpts from my 2015, 2014, and 2013 lists.   Thank you for reading, and I wish you your own extremely joyful and transformational 2015.

key changes and directions for 2015 (excerpts)

Take an explicit, proactive, and assertive stance regarding sexual harassment and assault. (On a public policy/administrative level as well as at each camp session.) Hold, and communicate, a clear intention to not only make NBTSC as safe as possible, but also to continue to foster the birth and building of healthy and respectful relationships.

[Explanatory note: this past year we were shocked and saddened to read a camper’s report that in 2012, they had been sexually assaulted at NBTSC by a friend. This news felt like it challenged everything we did – our whole approach to trusting youth – and at the same time it felt important not to let it change what was already working about NBTSC; i.e. that same overall stance of trusting and respecting youth. Doubtless we will be integrating and responding to this news for years to come.]

  • Expand and clarify all of our communication regarding consent, assault, harassment, etc.
  • Choose and integrate one or more outside resources/curricula to support our learning in this domain (administrators, session staff, and campers)
  • Sexual harassment/assault policy in the works.
  • Continue our new mandatory session on sexual assault/harassment, for all campers; develop a standard outline for this session.
  • New staff position at every session: consent consultant or consent team
  • Take this realm on wholeheartedly, yet without shutting down the radically wide open free space that is  our hallmark and that is deeply connected to our philosophy and the trust that we want to continue to extend to youth. (That is, don’t try to make camp safer by requiring everyone to sleep in their own beds.  And don’t punish current campers for something they are not responsible for; don’t unnecessarily remove liberties.)
  • Also continue to do what we can to protect everyone’s rights – including alleged perpetrators’ rights not to be subjected to vigilante revenge/damaging gossip.

Everyone who reaches out to NBTSC needs to receive a timely response.
[Because: in the competition between my sanity and my inbox, the inbox is winning.]

  • Appoint an NBTSC administrator to sincerely, briefly, and quickly respond to each communication sent our way. This includes many communications that are currently sent personally to Grace. Grace never keeps up thoroughly, and needs help.
  • Each communication should receive a brief but not trivial response ~ ideally within 1-2 days, within a week at the absolute latest.
  • Grace will set up a new administrative email address, and adapt website information, so that people understand that one of several camp admins may respond to communications even if they are sent personally to Grace.

No more peanuts at sessions where we run our own kitchen.We hope to make camp safer for allergic folks. (One peanut-allergic camper canceled in 2014 after another teen from her town, with a supposedly mild peanut allergy, died at another camp – despite using 2 epipens. Peanut-related deaths seem to be happening with increased frequency and it feels like time to adapt accordingly.)

  • Kitchen coordinators remove peanuts from our menu
  • We ask campers and staff not to bring snacks containing peanuts.
  • We ask parents not to send care packages including peanuts
  • We will still need to communicate clearly that we cannot guarantee a peanut-free campus (we don’t police or inspect enough to make a promise like that)
  • Not attempting to change anything at Camp Latgawa (where they cook for us) – at least not this year.

key changes and directions for 2014 (excerpts)

Connect more with the land.
Integrate our program more deeply with each site, and promote more connection with the natural world.

“Continue to encourage more activities to occur outside. Maybe even do this in situations where campers resist it. My background includes working with youth outdoors where the environment plays a much larger role in the experience. I know campers are primarily here to see each other, and yet I still feel they would benefit immensely, maybe even to a degree you can’t imagine, if they had more experience under the trees and sky. In a dining hall or meeting room it’s easy to forget how small we are. And yes, we have personal issues that need to be resolved before we can freely enjoy nature, but when you’re stargazing and surrounded by the mystery and wonder of the natural world sometimes it provides a context, a perspective that can be profoundly calming. Growing up going to “outdoor” camps I did a lot of activities that resembled NBTSC community meeting, talent show, and trust circle, that were made memorable because they happened outside at night.” –Jack Perrin, 2013 (Camp Latgawa)

Camp Latgawa ~

  • promote outdoor sleeping
  • try some of our meetings and evening events outside.
  • “I would encourage advisors to get familiar with the low ropes stations here and use them.” – Jack

Camp Myrtlewood ~

  • John Jones has increased our appreciation of the land – where can we go from here?
  • Make John’s eco-forestry workshop a mainstay of the schedule, early in the session

Farm & Wilderness ~

  • we hope to have more access to more of the site.
    • Get Ethan, and maybe other nearby staff, to go through F&W training so we can use their ropes course, climbing wall, etc.

Joshua Tree ~

  • plan lots of outdoor activities and appreciation, plus a field trip to JT National Park, from the get.

Winter in Joshua Tree!
Add a 9-night January 2015  session in Joshua Tree.

Integrate alumni!

  • Continue (and improve) “assistant” program at the Vermont retreat.
  • Start laying groundwork for a possible future (2015 or 2016?) Joshua Tree event for alumni, concurrent with our new camp there. Invite them to eat with us, to participate in certain aspects of our main camper session (offer workshops, etc.), and to attend a couple evening events.
  • Lay groundwork for developing a database of alumni who are willing to be available to campers (for job shadowing, apprenticeships, temporary living quarters to check out a new city, etc.).
    • If this goes well, consider expanding to include parents and others from our extended community.

Carefully draft and clearly share (with staff) a comprehensive emergency plan including communication tree

  • for personal incidents (like a 2013 finger injury, which we did not handle well)
  • and possible emergencies that might impact the whole group
  • Communicate better with all staff re our policies, but especially with first aid, mama bear/nurse, logistics, and session director.

key changes and directions for 2013 (excerpts)

Create a warmer and more connective year-round welcome; a conscious plan for how camp administrators communicate with campers and their families — more in line with who we are as an organization and as a community.
More mindfulness and clarity all around. Bring light to the dark places:

  • NBTSC storage unit (it’s an abyss, and it has too much stuff)
  • NBTSC supplies (another abyss)
  • (lack of) communication with non-hired staff (especially former staff)
  • communication w/ former campers

Clarify goals and intentions for health staff/our health program. Make sure we are serving the community’s actual needs; that, rather than protecting anyone’s license, should be our highest priority.

~Grace Llewellyn, December 31, 2014